Student Sues UT-Austin, Citing Inferiority of Online Education

A student at the University of Texas at Austin has joined a growing list of others filing class-action lawsuits against colleges and universities around the country in the wake of the pandemic. On February 26, Alissa Reyes filed the class-action lawsuit with assistance from her attorney, Anthony Bruster. She and her attorneys claim that the online education provided by the defendants, UT-Austin and its regents, was not worth the tuition paid – and she’s not alone in seeking compensation.

Is Online Learning “Lesser Than” In-Person Learning? UT-Austin Student Thinks So

When the COVID-19 pandemic surged early in the spring of 2020, students across the country were in the midst of the spring semester. As lockdown orders went into effect, colleges and universities around the country scrambled to address the situation. Since most schools already offer online learning options, many were able to quickly pivot to offering remote learning for their students, allowing them to finish the semester without having to crowd together during a dangerous pandemic.

The crux of the UT-Austin lawsuits and others like it is this: Do students get the same quality of education via online learning as they do via in-person, on-campus experiences? Students like Alissa Reyes don’t think so. They are filing massive class-action lawsuits seeking compensation for tuition that they paid with the expectation of being provided with in-person instruction.

Lawsuit Calls Online Learning a “Materially Different and Insufficient Product”

The lawsuit filed the last week of February seeks compensation for the named plaintiff, Reyes, and any other students who paid tuition to UT-Austin expecting a hands-on, in-person experience. The suit requests a prorated refund proportional to the time spent online because of the pandemic. Classes at UT-Austin moved online in the spring of 2020.

Attorneys for Reyes state that students paid their tuition expecting to receive a “first-rate education and educational experience.” Instead, however, what they got was a “materially different and insufficient product.” The lawsuit claims that the school’s handling of the situation constitutes a breach of contract – but legal experts question whether this argument has any merit.

Will Angry Students Prevail? The Jury is Still Out

Since the pandemic hit, more than 70 lawsuits have been filed against colleges and universities around the country. In many of these lawsuits, students request reimbursement for things like housing, dining and campus services. These things are easy to quantify; furthermore, schools didn’t provide those services. Most schools voluntarily provided refunds for these types of things.

The real question is whether colleges and universities should reimburse tuition for what many students feel is an inferior product. Students have filed class-action lawsuits against dozens of schools, including Boston University, Brown University, Columbia University, DePaul University, Harvard University, Michigan State University and Purdue University. Across the higher-education system, losses from the pandemic have exceeded $1 billion, so it’s safe to say these schools will fight these lawsuits vigorously.

Lawsuits Could Set Precedent for Future of Higher Education

Legal experts believe that colleges and universities have plenty of legal arguments at their disposal for defending themselves against these pandemic-related lawsuits. Primarily because of state shutdown orders, they can use the impossibility of performance argument. There’s also the force majeure clause, which protects defendants from liability if catastrophic events beyond their control caused their failure to perform – and the pandemic certainly falls under that umbrella.

Further, schools may argue that there is no single, specific document – especially a contract – that they breached by switching from in-person to online learning. Schools continued providing students with an education, so it may be challenging to prove that any tuition should be reimbursed.

Remote Learning May Be Here to Stay – for Now

A year into the pandemic, various lockdown orders and restrictions are still in place in many states. If Reyes and others like her prevail in winning judgments against their schools, it could force colleges and universities to rethink the way they charge tuition completely. Since the pandemic will likely be a reality for some time to come, schools need to figure out how to provide the best remote learning experiences they can to avoid additional lawsuits in the future.

One thing’s for sure: Sitting in front of a computer is much different than strolling a physical campus, being able to interact with students and professors and being near prime educational resources. It’s easy to see why students like Reyes feel cheated, but ultimately, the issue is up for the courts to decide.

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